The Biden Administration Must Press for Accountability and Justice for Shireen Abu Akleh

On September 5, the Israeli Army released the long-awaited results of its investigation into the murder of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh by Israeli forces on May 11, 2022 in the West Bank city of Jenin. The report concluded that there is “a high possibility that Ms. Abu Akleh was accidentally hit by IDF gunfire that was fired toward suspects identified as armed Palestinian gunmen.” However, the report also stated that Israeli Army gunfire at the scene “was fired with the intent of neutralizing the terrorists who shot at IDF soldiers,” which implies that said gunfire was not purposely targeting Abu Akleh. The report also maintains that she might have been hit by Palestinian fire, and finds that “there is no suspicion of a criminal offense that justifies the opening of a Military Police investigation.”

A more detailed report by Israeli human rights organization B’tselem, however, mentions two targeted volleys and a subsequent burst of gunfire totaling at least 16 shots fired at Abu Akleh and her fellow journalists, and concludes that a bullet in the second volley is the one that killed Abu Akleh. Regarding the question of intent, B’tselem’s report states that, “Lack of intent does not grant an exemption from liability. A pertinent question is whether any real effort was made to prevent civilian casualties during a pre-planned Israeli military operation, carried out in broad daylight by heavily protected military forces. Israel, on its part, certainly made no such effort.” Thorough and detailed investigations by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, CNN, the New York Times, the Associated Press, and the Washington Post also all concluded that the bullet that killed Abu Akleh almost certainly came from an Israeli Army position, with some investigations emphasizing that this was a targeted attack on Abu Akleh and her fellow journalists. A joint investigation by London-based Forensic Architecture and Palestinian human rights organization al-Haq concluded that Abu Akleh’s killing was in fact “deliberate” and that “the sniper was able to clearly tell that there were journalists in the area.”

The Israeli Army report on its own internal investigation, meanwhile, came in the wake of increased US pressure on Israel to investigate the killing. Israel’s investigation, however, followed a well-known pattern of Israeli responses to similar shootings of Palestinians, and failed to answer some of the most significant questions raised by the other reports and investigations.

The Israeli report failed to account for facts demonstrated by Palestinian, Israeli, and US sources that had already thoroughly investigated the killing.

The Israeli report failed to account for facts demonstrated by Palestinian, Israeli, and US sources that had already thoroughly investigated the killing. These organizations and news outlets interviewed witnesses, reviewed images and videos of the incident and the site, and concluded that there were no Palestinian fighters in the vicinity. In addition, they found that Abu Akleh and her fellow journalists had just passed by the Israeli Army position in question, made sure that they were seen and recognized as members of the press, and then took up positions far from any fighting. As veteran journalist Ali Samudi, who was also wounded during the same incident, testified, “We walked in a straight line and there were some military jeeps ahead of us, about 200 meters away. We wanted the soldiers to see us and identify us as journalists.”

Given Israel’s ongoing violence against Palestinians in the occupied territories, and its purposeful obfuscation of the matter in the media, it is up to the United States—as Israel’s most significant and powerful supporter—to force Israel to change its behavior, and to push for justice and accountability in the killing of Shireen Abu Akleh and for all the other innocent Palestinians who have died under the brutal Israeli occupation.

The Chronology of the Israeli Narrative

As has been the case in Israeli narratives about previous deaths in the occupied territories, the official Israeli story in the case of Abu Akleh first denied any responsibility for the event, claiming that Abu Akleh was the victim of Palestinian fire. Israeli officials even circulated a video of a Palestinian fighter allegedly shooting indiscriminately down an alley in Jenin, claiming that he was the one who had shot Abu Akleh. But it was later demonstrated that the alley was far from where Abu Akleh had been killed, and the claim was withdrawn.

After first announcing that they would not conduct an investigation, Israeli officials then said that they had possession of the weapon that may have killed Abu Akleh, but could not be certain unless the PA turned over the bullet for analysis. A US Security Coordinator-supervised investigation, that included examining the bullet, later determined that no “definitive conclusion regarding the origin of the bullet” that killed Abu Akleh could be reached because it was “badly damaged.” The Biden administration nonetheless insisted that Israel conduct its own investigation, which resulted in the report that was released on September 5. These attempts at escaping accountability on Israel’s part—assisted so far by an ineffective American position—have led a group of lawyers and activists to file a complaint with the International Criminal Court on behalf of Abu Akleh’s family, asking the court to investigate her killing.

This far in 2022, roughly 80 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces, with few of these killings having been investigated and none having resulted in accountability or an indictment.

This far in 2022, roughly 80 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces, with few of these killings having been investigated and none having resulted in accountability or an indictment. The pattern here has been quite consistent, and was also followed when Palestinian children were killed on a beach in Gaza, and during the recent shelling of the Gaza Strip in early August. First, Israel denies responsibility, or even denies that a killing took place. Then, as videos and other documentary evidence begin to circulate in the media, Israel claims that it was Palestinian fire that caused the death, with Israeli soldiers always presented as acting in self-defense as they come under threat of Palestinian attack. And next come the usual obfuscating statements claiming that the facts are not known and are probably even unknowable.

Then an investigation follows—but only if there has been sufficient public pressure and exposure to force the Israelis to do so. Such investigations do not interview any Palestinian witnesses; nor do they question the reason for the presence of Israeli soldiers or their conduct. The assumption made is always that the Israeli Army had the right and the duty to act, that it was fighting “terrorism,” and that if any Palestinian civilians were killed in the process, they only had the so-called terrorists to blame. When all else fails, these investigations insist that there was never any intention to harm innocent Palestinians and that the deaths were the result of a tragic mistake. And they also consider irrelevant the fact that in most cases, deaths occur in Palestinian areas during actions taken upon the initiative of the Israeli Army.

This typical chronology of the official Israeli response when it comes to its occupation of and crimes against the Palestinians demonstrates that Israel’s strategy is to muddle, manipulate, and otherwise control the narrative. The idea is to keep abhorrent Israeli behavior in the occupied Palestinian territories out of the public sphere and the media. Demonstrating to the world that Israel regularly commits these acts is key to exposing the brutality of its ongoing occupation, and is an aspect of the issue that has largely been neglected by the international community. And this is exactly why Israel deploys misleading public relations and organized obfuscation campaigns to keep its violent practices and illegal behavior as far as possible from public view.

Israel’s Rules of Engagement and International Law

After the killing of Abu Akleh, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who was facing public pressure and demands for accountability for the death of a US citizen, reportedly asked Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz to review Israel’s rules of engagement in the occupied West Bank. The idea behind the request was that Israel’s open fire regulations, which govern the behavior of Israeli soldiers entering Palestinian civilian areas in the occupied territories should be reconsidered in order to ensure that killings like this do not happen again. However, even this rather limited suggestion brought on a torrent of arrogant rebuffs from Israeli officials. Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, for example, said, “No one will dictate our open-fire policies to us when we are fighting for our lives.” Defense Minister Gantz, meanwhile, flatly stated that, “There was and will be no political involvement in the matter.” The message here was clear: only the Israeli Army sets its own rules of engagement.

International law does provide clear guidance regarding the behavior of the Israeli Army in dealing with a civilian population under military occupation—even when facing armed resistance.

However, international law does provide clear guidance regarding the behavior of the Israeli Army in dealing with a civilian population under military occupation—even when facing armed resistance. The Geneva Conventions clearly state that an occupying force has a legal duty under international law to ensure the safety and protection of civilian noncombatants under its occupation, that it should use force only in self-defense, and that it cannot carry out collective punishment or use torture on the occupied population. These provisions of international law are binding for Israel, as they are for other nations.

But Israel tries to sidestep the requirement to follow these rules using a variety of legal arguments. It claims, for example, that while it did indeed sign the Geneva Conventions, they were not ratified by the Knesset, and therefore are not binding on its own courts. It also argues that these rules do not apply when the population in question did not previously belong to a “recognized sovereign.” Israel claims that because the Ottoman Empire—which formerly governed Palestine—had ended, and because Palestine was subsequently under a League of Nations Mandate prior to the establishment of the State of Israel, the Palestinians never had an independent sovereign nation that could make claims on their behalf, and therefore do not merit the protections of international conventions, including the Geneva and Hague Conventions, which Israel argues apply only to officially recognized sovereign nations. Israel and its apologists also sometimes argue that these conventions do not apply to territory captured in a “defensive” war, or paradoxically state that the West Bank and the Gaza Strip are not really “occupied” at all.

US Responsibility

The US State Department needs to continue to press Israel for real accountability for the death of Shireen Abu Akleh, a US citizen who was simply trying to do her job documenting the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. The administration must do more than merely present a timid request that Israel reconsider its rules of engagement when dealing with Palestinian civilians, noncombatants, and press personnel. The US possesses a wide variety of tools to pressure Israel—a country that can ill afford to alienate its principal financial, military, and diplomatic supporter. But unfortunately, past experience has taught the Israelis that they can safely ignore US objections.

Indeed, the US is reportedly already backing off from its call for Israel to reconsider its rules of engagement. Perhaps it was the public nature of the US request that outraged Israeli politicians, especially coming as it did on the eve of their elections. Regardless, what is really needed is not some mild suggestion, but rather the application of firm and severe pressure. This pressure could be applied behind the scenes, but it must also come with real and tangible consequences if Israel fails to provide accountability for its actions, particularly when it comes to taking the lives of American citizens like Shireen Abu Akleh.